FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Arrivederci Roma

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 5, 2013

Our week in the eternal city ended as it began, under black skies and a deluge of torrential rain.

The bleak start seemed to set the tone for the day with a whole sequence of events to test our patience – starting with a couple in the supermarket on front of us deciding they no longer wanted the shopping they had just bought, initiating a lengthy item by item refund process! This was followed by a machine swallowing our payment for the train and deciding it wouldn’t print any tickets, followed a little later by the breakdown of the airport express itself!

Any relief we felt at making it to the airport dissipated as soon as we passed through security and saw the hefty queue for passport control at Fiumicino. We were among the lucky ones who still had enought time to make our flights, but the sight of passengers sprinting as they got through the gates suggested that others were not so fortunate. I’ve never seen anything quite like that at an airport.

All of this ought to have put us off making a return visit to Rome, but the city is worth putting up with such hassles… I am sure we will be back some day!

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Trajan’s column

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 4, 2013

Trajan’s Column was one of the sights that first caught my eye after arriving in Rome fifteen years ago. The intricately carved tower of pure white Carrara marble is a remarkable survivor from the ancient world, changed only by the substitution of the bronze statue of Trajan with a statue of Saint Peter in 1587. I marvelled at the incredible relief spiralling all the way to the top but it seemed impossible to make sense of the story from my viewpoint on the ground.

Trajan's Column in Trajan's Forum, Rome

Trajan’s Column in Trajan’s Forum, Rome

The column was constructed in 113AD as a monument to the Emperor Trajan and to hold his ashes upon his death (within a room at the base). The column also marked the height of the hillside that had to be cut away to construct Trajan’s Forum, with buildings enclosing the column once it was in place. Although the column still stands these surrounding buildings have long gone, leaving the column in splendid isolation but also depriving us of an easy platform to view the upper segment of the relief.

Luckily, Napoleon III arranged for three sets of casts to be made of the entire relief in 1861-2 and the first set can now be viewed at the Museo della Civiltà Romana. It is a daunting prospect – four rows of 125 reliefs in sequential order – and even at a steady walking pace a viewing will take at least thirty minutes, adding time for any more detailed examination. Inevitably, the rich detail demands further examination and additional time – making it a mentally exhausting but fascinating journey through four years of Roman history.

The casts of Trajan's Column in the Museo della Civiltà Romana

The casts of Trajan’s Column in the Museo della Civiltà Romana

The relief tells the story of the Dacian wars fought by Trajan in 101-102 and 105-106, providing a surprising amount of detail about the campaigns. It is just as well, because written sources about the two wars are scarce. As with all history written by the victors there is an element of propaganda to the story depicted here, particularly with the repeated emphasis on the barbarity of the Dacians compared to the Romans. This is never more apparent than in those panels contrasting the way that prisoners were treated by each side. The details are quite gruesome in places, with severed heads making appearances in a few places.

The column shows the mechanics of the campaign, such as the chopping down of trees to support the war effort, as well as the fighting itself. Trajan makes fifty-nine appearances in the casts – in scenes encouraging his troops, participating in the battle and receiving the surrender of the Dacian nobles amongst others. At the very end of the sequence the Dacian city is left to burn and the Dacians deported from their homeland.

Ironically, one of the defining features of the column today – it’s striking white colour – may be far removed from how the column would have appeared in its early days. Although no traces of paint have been found on the column it is thought that the entire frieze would have been painted in colour. One thing we can be certain of is the thanks we owe to Napoleon III for creating these casts – they now present an invaluable record of the relief at a time before the pollution of the industrial and modern age could do their worst.

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The cat sanctuary

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 4, 2013

One of the strong memories from my first trip to Rome was the sheer number of abandoned, sick and feral cats that could be seen around the tourist sites, especially at the Colosseum and the Forum. It was something of a surprise to see how much things have changed since then, which must in no small part be down to the work of the cat sanctuary at Largo di Torre Argentina. Sadly, the sanctuary is under threat of eviction from the authorities.

Torre Argentina, home to two hundred abandoned cats

Torre Argentina, home to two hundred abandoned cats

Largo di Torre Argentina is a remarkable square, holding the remains of four Roman temples and the curia where Julius Caesar met his end in 44 BC. The ruins are not accessible to the public, but the entire site is viewable from every angle from the pedestrian walkway around the square.

Around two hundred cats live in the square and it is a real pleasure to spot them strolling around the site or curled up amongst the columns – including some remarkably spritely three legged cats. The sanctuary even had an abandoned rabbit until relatively recently which had been accepted by the other cats and accorded the status of honorary cat!

The sanctuary is open to visitors from midday until 6pm, presenting an ideal opportunity to learn more about the work and to visit the indoor space which is home to new arrivals, blind cats and some of the neurologically damaged cats. It was inspiring stuff, particularly when we heard about one cat who arrived at the sanctuary in a state of paralysis but had recovered some movement over seven years of care. It was an easy choice to make a donation to support the continuation of this incredible story – long may the good work continue.

To find out more about the cat sanctuary and how to support their work, visit their website at romancats.com

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Making sense of ancient Rome

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 4, 2013

The challenge with any visit to Rome is to find a way to make sense of the fragments that remain, a task that has been made especially difficult at the Forum with the way that the Via dell’Impero (now the Via dei Fori Imperiali) was cut straight through the centre in the 1930s. The resulting division hid much of the excavations and made it harder for the casual visitor to visualise the remaining structures as an integrated site.

On top of this, Mussolini’s plans for the processional way and clearances around the Colosseum involved the destruction of an incredible quantity of historic buildings and structures, such as the ruined marvel of the Meta Sudans (a cone shaped fountain that ingeniously ‘sweated’ water). Nevertheless, what remains is truly impressive. If it manages to withstand the pressures of vast visitor numbers, traffic vibrations and pollution for another thousand years it will be a miracle!

Early morning at the Forum

Early morning at the Forum

An early morning start at the combined attractions of the Forum and Palatine Hill gives the best opportunity to see the sight without the crowds, though the site is sufficiently large that it will inevitably be busy by the time you are ready to leave.

The inaccessibity of so many parts of the Palatine Hill was a little frustrating, though the guardians of this place have an unenviable job in trying to preserve a sight under constant siege from tourists! One unexpected sight that delighted me was a glimpse of Emperor Nero’s rotating dining room, a structure that was discovered in 2009 during consolidation works (see the BBC news report Nero’s rotating dining room discovered for the full story).

The Palatine Hill from Circus Maximus

The Palatine Hill from Circus Maximus

On this trip I also got the chance to visit some Roman sights that I had never seen before, such as the Baths of Caracalla, the Baths of Diocletian and Trajan’s Markets.

The epic ruins of the Baths of Caracalla impress incredibly with their vast scale and wandering around the site leaves you in no doubt of the lost magnifence of ancient Rome. Yet this must be just a fraction of the awe that they would have inspired in bathers during their working life (unless you had the misfortune to be one of the hundreds of slaves tirelessly trudging the tunnels hidden out of sight under the complex, keeping the waters warm by feeding the fifty ovens with a constant supply of wood).

I got an even greater sense of the effect this must have had on a visit to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, which was built in the tepidarium of Diocletian’s baths. The design devised by Michelangelo incorporates the original forty-five foot tall columns of red granite that towered over thousands of visitors during the working life of the baths. Today, the same columns make you appreciate how much this monumental structure dwarfed the ordinary man. It is as though they were built for a race of giants that have long since died out!

Castel St Angelo

Castel St Angelo

In other places centuries of adaptations have taken buildings a long way from their original appearance, as at the Castel St Angelo. Centuries of fortification and re-purposing leave you scratching your head at theoretical reconstructions of the building’s early life as Hadrian’s Mausoleum and looking like a completely different building to the one we know today.

Our week finished with a visit to a couple of museums that helped us put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme presented us with one element that had been missing – the sculptures, mosaics and wall paintings that you associate with the Roman world. The second museum, the Museo della Civilta Romana, helped us understand much better the achievements of each Emperor and the constructions associated with their reign. It’s also worth visiting to see the vast model of Constantine’s Rome, which really allows you to fit all the sights into one landscape.

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Fascist architecture in Rome

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 4, 2013

I have long been intrigued by a picture in my old guidebook of the “square colosseum”, a striking building from the 1930s which looks like nothing I have seen anywhere else. It has been described as an iconic construction in the fascist architectural style, which harks back to the styling and imposing scale of buildings from ancient Rome.

The Square Colosseum

The Square Colosseum

I didn’t really know anything about this architectural style before my trip, but a little research on the internet helped me plan some modest diversions on our visit to Rome to take a closer look at two locations where you can still find many other buildings and monuments that exemplify the fascist style of architecture – Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) and the Foro Italico.

The “square colosseum”, officially known as the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro, was inaugurated in 1940 as the centrepiece of a world fair proposed for 1942. A number of grand buildings were constructed in the EUR district whilst others were planned but never made it off the drawing board. Today, the district has become a desirable place to live and in a strange way reminds me a little of the new town vibe of Milton Keynes.

One of the statues around the Stadio dei Marmi

One of the statues around the Stadio dei Marmi

In contrast, the Foro Italico (originally named the Foro Mussolini) was developed as a sporting complex that would show the world the athletic prowess of the new order – this is particularly evident in the Stadio del Marmi which is surrounded by 60 sporting statues. It’s an impressive sight, regardless of its origins, although the attempt to blend the classical with modern sports renders some of the statues more than a little absurd – I can’t recall many skiers whose costume consists solely of a fig leaf! Might be a tad cold on the slopes…

Amongst the other features of this complex are an obelisk dedicated to Mussolini, some remarkable mosaics (sadly in a state of disrepair in places) and a swimming pool decorated in a heroic style. Leading up to the site is the Ponte Duca d’Aosta, a simple bridge with intricately carved panels at each end. All of this is a fascinating glimpse into the plans that Mussolini had for his vision of a new Rome, though it is just as well that this was never allowed to come to full fruition if the destruction wrought on the historic centre of Rome by the creation of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is anything to go by.

A mosaic in the Piazzale del'Impero

A mosaic in the Piazzale del’Impero

It is easy to visit both sites. To get to Foro Italico, take the metro to Flaminio and then take Tram no 2 from the end of the line at the Piazza de Popolo all the way to Piazza Mancini, which is just a short walk away from the Ponte Duca d’Aosta. The site now incorporates gates for the Olympic stadium (which now hosts football) and the tennis courts but these were open to wander through when we visited – although we had to make do with a more distant view of the Stadio del Marmi as work was underway to turn the stadium into a temporary concert venue.

Information on the complex can be a little scarce, but there is a good walk in the book ‘Rome the Second Time’ and a useful blog post on the Foro Italico on their website.

EUR can be reached on metro line B. Our visit took us to EUR Magliana (nearest to the Square Colosseum) and across the central square to the Museo della Civiltà Romana (a morning trip, as the museum closes at 2pm). After a couple of hours marvelling at the exhibits inside we ended our visit with a short walk to Laurentina at the end of the line.

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Ostia Antica

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on October 3, 2013

A day trip to Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome, provided a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the modern city (well, if you ignore the occasional plane coming in to land at Fiumicino). It was remarkably easy to get to the site which can be reached in thirty minutes by train from Porta San Paolo railway station on the Roma-Lido suburban line. From the railway station it is just a five minute walk to the gates of the ancient city.

It is quite something to be able to walk down the cobbled main street of a city that has long been abandoned, exploring remarkable buildings on each side. It takes a while for the full scale of the site to hit you, even when you have been staring at the map for a while. Once you get up to a higher viewpoint and see the spread of the city it is quite astonishing (and impossible to replicate in any photo!).

Ostia Antica: a city awaiting exploration

Ostia Antica: a city awaiting exploration

In a moment of genius I had forgotten to load a memory card after downloading yesterday’s photos, so it was down to the assistant photographer to record the occasion on his mobile phone. In many ways it was a good thing – without a camera I could focus on navigating us on our wander through the site and enjoying the remarkable sights. Even so, it was hard to resist composing pictures in my head from time to time!

The map available at the ticket office is well worth the two euros it costs as it can be hard to orient yourself once you are amongst the buildings and it really helps you to focus on the key buildings that you need to see. That said, we found plenty of fascinating buildings not marked on the map too! It took us a good five hours to feel like we had done the place any kind of justice and probably still missed plenty.

The rather wonderful Ostia Antica website includes plenty of fascinating information and a superb free tourist guide that gives some of the background on the buildings in the city.

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Dark clouds over Rome

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on September 30, 2013

The forecast for our first full day in Rome had been pretty terrible, leaving us in wary anticipation of heavy rain from early morning through to late evening. It was something of a surprise then to pull back the curtains in the morning to a vision of blue skies and bright sunshine. This turned out to be a trap that many unsuspecting tourists (including us) fell into, as the weather switched fairly dramatically to heavy rain, then torrential rain.

A view across the Forum to the Altare della Patria

A view across the Forum to the Altare della Patria

Our day began at the Altare della Patria (otherwise known as Il Vittoriano or by popular nicknames such as the Typewriter or Wedding Cake) and the associated Museum of the Risorgimento. The last time I visited Il Vittoriano had not been open to the public and the museum had been shut for around 20 years. A lift has now been attached to the rear of the building which allowed us to take in an incredible view of the eternal city, including St Peter’s Basilica in the distance. Already the weather was changing rather dramatically, with blue skies replaced by foreboding black clouds.

Black clouds over Rome

Black clouds over Rome

It was raining by the time we left the building and had turned considerably heavier by the time our scheduled tour of the Colosseum began (one of the official tours of the Colosseum, Underground and Third Ring that takes you into areas not open under the general admission tickets). I don’t think there is anything new to say about the Colosseum that won’t have been said already in 16,000 tripadvisor reviews of the place, except to add that I felt the tour provided a welcome alternative perspective for a second time visitor.

The rain added an interesting dimension to our tour, creating impromptu waterfalls in the underground levels and a more energetic approach to viewing (which invariably involved a dash to look at something followed by a quick retreat under cover). The photos don’t really convey just how mad this was…

Waterfall at the Colosseum

Waterfall at the Colosseum

Finally, we ended our day indoors at the Vatican Museum on the assumption that this was a good way to avoid the rain for the rest of the afternoon – though, of course, it remained resolutely sunny from this point onwards!

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Roman holiday

Posted in Italy, Rome by folkestonejack on September 29, 2013

Arrived in Rome this afternoon for a short break – my first visit to the city in over fifteen years. It is likely to be something of a shock to the system as the last time I was in town it was out of season and the visitors numbers have more than doubled since the 1990s.

The eternal city

The eternal city

I am most looking forward to a trip to see the intriguing Foro Italico and, at the other extreme, somewhat dreading the prospect of sightseeing in the rush-hour type crush of the Vatican Museum! Overall, it will be good to see the place afresh and visit some of the places that were shut on my last trip.